A Guide to Graaff-Reinet, Eastern Cape.
I knew it was inevitable, that I’d fall so deeply in love with a place that I’d be willing to drop all travel plans right then and there to rent a home for a couple of months. Little did I know it would happen so early on in the trip.
Graaff-Reinet is a town in the Eastern Cape Province and, after Cape Town, Stellenbosch, and Swellendam, the fourth oldest in South Africa. It’s also the only town in South Africa completely surrounded by a national park - the Camdeboo National Park.
Founded by the Dutch East India Company, Graaff-Reinet is named after the governor, Cornelius Jacob van de Graaff, and his wife, Cornelia Reinet. Although officially founded in 1786, trekboere settled in the surrounding countryside from the early 1770s, and as was common in almost all parts of the Karoo, they came into conflict with the indigenous San or Bushmen who had been living in the area for countless centuries before.
The hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the San lead to inevitable conflict with the pastoral lifestyle of these early farmers. As the San were increasingly deprived of their best hunting land they resorted to killing the farmer’s livestock in order to survive. This lead to a 30-year period of almost never-ending conflict between these two cultures, with more than 3,000 San killed in the conflict.
Since then, Graaff-Reinet went through four changes in government. Including a stint where the town’s residents, annoyed by company taxation, tried their very best to declare the town as the so-called "Republic of Graaff-Reinet”.
Later in the mid-nineteenth century it was one of the starting points for the Great Trek and, when the railway line came in to service in August 1879, eventually served as a gateway to the diamond fields of Kimberley and the gold fields of the Witwatersrand en-route from Port Elizabeth.
It grew to become an important centre for education to the surrounding districts. In 1920 Union High School opened its doors as an independent English Church school whilst the Hoër Volkskool was established in 1922 as the first Afrikaans language school in the old Cape Province. Further on, an important milestone in the development of Graaff-Reinet was the construction of the Van Ryneveld Dam which was completed in 1925. Graaff-Reinet received its first supply of tap water following the construction of the dam.
Between 1965 and 1981 Dr Anton Rupert contributed significantly to the culture and heritage of Graaff-Reinet by actively supporting the restoration of many of the town’s most significant and important homesteads and buildings. His enormous contribution to the town has resulted in the development of Graaff-Reinet as one of South Africa’s most significant cultural and heritage centres with more than 220 listed national monuments. Making it home to more national monuments than any other town or city in South Africa.
WHERE TO STAY
My three-day stay started off by checking in at the Drostdy Hotel, in the heart of town and one of the best examples of responsible tourism I’ve ever come across.
A Drostdy used to be the name given to the office or residence of a landdrost, a Boer magistrate in a rural district of South Africa prior to the establishment of British administration. This Drostdy was built in the early 1800’s and designed by Louis Thibault, serving as a residence for the local magistrate until 1847. In 1878, after having changed hands a number of times, the building was bought by Henry Kromm and converted into a hotel which became known as Kromm’s Drostdy Hotel. Kromm sold it in 1903 and it continued as a hotel under various owners until its acquisition in 1975 by Historical Homes of South Africa when the building was restored and, with the adjacent Stretch’s Court, converted into the upmarket hotel it is today.
Drostdy Hotel offers forty-eight 5-star rated rooms, which have been decorated with crisp whites, wooden elements, bold Karoo art and décor reminiscent of a history-filled past. The colourful Stretch’s Court, once a row of houses for freed slaves, includes thirty-one of these rooms, and the one in which I stayed.
The highlight of my stay, however, did not lie in the clawfoot tub or in the luxury of a 5-star lifestyle that I’m nowhere near used to, but in the knowing that, just by staying there, I’m helping to support a life-changing upliftment project.
In partnership with the SA College for Tourism and the Peace Parks Foundation, Drostdy works to give opportunities to many underprivileged rural individuals who want to step into the hospitality industry. Graduates of this program have gone on to open their own guest houses or restaurants. Others are finding themselves at South-Africa’s top tourism establishments, and some have even gone on to secure jobs in places like Italy, Dubai, the UK and Hong Kong.
It’s great knowing that simply by staying at the Drostdy Hotel, you’re helping to support such a life-changing upliftment project.
Responsible tourism aside, the on-site De Camdeboo Restaurant is open to hotel guests and visitors alike and offers breakfast (included in your stay), lunch and dinner. Their main focus is on hearty locally-known dishes, at an exceptionally high quality.
Take a stroll through the art gallery and pop in to the wineshop for a wide selection of mostly Rupert-owned options, all at cellar prices. Wine tastings are offered upon prior booking. I also highly recommend the on-site, Africology Spa. A pure healing heaven where we were able to select the raw plant ingredients to be used in our treatments, straight from the Drostdy Hotel garden.
WHAT TO DO
The best way to get to know the town beyond the walls of the Drostdy is through Dave McNaughton from Karoo Connections.
Our day started off with the Historical Graaff-Reinet tour on the Magazine Hill overlooking the town. The tour takes you through some of the well-known landmarks and national monuments and I quickly came to understand why David Livingstone called it “the prettiest town in all Africa”.
Dave told us about bullet holes in the walls of the resident's club and how Graaff-Reinet became the centre of British military operations for the Eastern Cape during the Second Boer War. In 1901, a number of captured Boer rebels were tried in the town for crimes ranging from high treason, murder, attempted murder, arson and robbery. They were all sentenced to death. The Anglo Boer memorial on the corner of Somerset and Donkin Streets was unveiled in 1908 and celebrates the lives of the men executed as traitors in the dying days of the war.
My highlight during the tour, Obesa Nursery, has been here since 1970 and it started as something of a hobby. Today they stock well over 7 000 species of plants. At the heart of the nursery is a labyrinth that follows the seven chakra colours from the outside in. The nursery also raises its own 35 000 odd plants every year, and stocks well over 2 million in total.
The multitude of plants aside, a brief encounter with the owner, Johan, makes the stop worthwhile in itself.
There are a number of museums in town, all worth a visit if you get the chance. Pictured here, the Reinet House Museum was built using mostly locally acquired material with government funding in 1812 in the Cape Dutch H-style. The museum houses a fine array of period furniture and kitchen utensils, doll collection, medical and dental collection, haberdashery and clothing collection, wagon and transport collection as well as a blacksmith collection. The garden is also home to one of the largest living grape vines in the world, which still bears fruit today.
The day ended with the Valley of Desolation Sundowner Tour, also booked through Karoo Connections. Situated in the Camdeboo National Park, a 19 405-hectare park with incredible open landscapes and home to 225 bird species, 34 reptile species and 43 mammal species including Kudu, Blesbok, Black Wildebeest, Oryx, Cape Mountain Zebra, Cape Buffalo, Red Hartebeest, Springbok and Eland.
We were treated to an incredible spread of treats, snacks, and drinks, as organised by the Drostdy Hotel. With Dave as our guide we experienced the the solitude of the hauntingly beautiful “Cathedral of the Mountains” with spectacular 120m high columns of ancient eroded volcanic rock that stand sentinel over the endless, parched Plains of Camdeboo. We sipped on some bubbles whilst enjoying the panoramic views overlooking Graaff-Reinet as the sun set.
Pop in to Dave’s office on Church Street, right next to his bookshop, McNaugton’s Books, which is also well-worth a visit (I’ve come to learn that these small-town folk are jacks of all trades), or contact him on 049 892 3978 to book a tour.
WHERE TO EAT
There's a surprising number of incredible restaurants in Graaff-Reinet.
I probably spent more time at Hello You than any other spot in town. Located on Somerset Street , its open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There’s also an incredibly beautifully curated shop next door called Windmill Junction, where you’ll find an array of leather, linen, and gifts, along with beautiful and unique décor pieces — all with a South African flavour.
Right next door, you’ll see a collection of shops called Our Yard. Pop in to Maria’s Roastery for the best coffee in town, roasted right there in front of you. Visit Johanneson Craft Liquor Merchant for a wide selection of wines, craft beers, gins, and be sure to try the Afrikanis Rum. Meander through the art gallery, and finish it off with a great meal at Our Yard Restaurant.
Coldstream was our dinner spot of choice, named after the officers of the 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards, the restaurant offers patrons the option of dining indoors or outdoors in their shady garden. All whilst overlooking the magnificent 130 year old Dutch Reformed Church (an attraction in itself). Coldstream is best known for the Italian cuisine on offer, from pizzas (claimed to be the best in town) to pasta, and tiramisu.
The restaurant forms part of the historical Graaff-Reinet Club (formerly known as The Gentlemen’s Club), established in 1875. From 1900-1902 the officers of the 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards, stationed at Graaff Reinet, made use of the club. Today, it’s well worth a visit for a drink and some historical tales before dinner.
Otherwise, there's also The Mullerhouse, Pioneers Restaurant and Pub, and a couple of other options in town. I sadly didn't get the chance to visit all of them, but I hear they're all worth a stop if you get around to them.
In all honesty, this post falls short in fully capturing all of the stories, historical insights, and experiences I had in Graaff-Reinet. I guess some things will never be fully translated in words or pictures and I’ll just have to keep them stored safely in my memories. I hope these historical bits and things to do entices you to visit this, so-called “Gem of the Karoo”. I can guarantee you it’ll be worth it. Small towns have a funny way of sneaking its way into your heart and Graaff-Reinet did just that.
There’s a whole lot of South Africa left to see, but I know I’ll be back here some day.